Cooking dinner in Huambo.
I came to Angola in the late summer of 1994. After a successful assignment with a major British charity in Nepal and a traumatic break-up with my fiancé (remember what I said about field romances?) I headed off to southern Africa with mixed feelings. I was chuffed to have landed what for me was a senior field-based role with a well-respected NGO. But for the first time since I began my aid career I was aware of whisperings from other parts of my soul. In particular the parts that connected me to other human beings.
As I walked into my living quarters which by field standards were more than adequate—big rooms, lots of light, a compound secured round the clock by guards—a rushing sensation rippled through me, as if I were a tree in an approaching gale. I shivered but quickly brushed away the resigned inner voice, “Great. Another empty room with no one to share it with. You got the job. So what?”
It was a watershed moment even though at the time I could not imagine just how comprehensively Angola would change me. Over the next days and weeks my life and inner world cascaded nearly out of control. I left Angola in December 1994. Five months older, bruised and confused.
Angola is one of Africa’s richest countries. Not only does it have deep reserves of oil and gas but its fisheries, agricultural land, minerals and gems are (or were, twenty years ago) rich and relatively untapped. The Portuguese had managed their African empire from Angola, and though they were not nearly as frightened of sleeping with the natives as their British, Belgian and French fellow imperialists, they did precious little to advance the general welfare of the Angolan people.
When the Portuguese were finally sent packing in 1975 armed conflict along ideological lines was a firmly entrenched feature of life. On one side was UNITA headed by the charismatic Jonas Savimbi. The West’s proxy freedom fighter. Pro capital. Pro ‘democracy’. On the other was the governing MPLA. Soviet ally. Marxist Leninist. Revolutionary and anti-Imperialist. These two forces battled each other fiercely for over three and a half decades until Savimbi at last died in 2002. The war ended almost immediately thereafter.
I was the Deputy Country Director for the British charity and as such had several responsibilities: represent the organization at huge inter-agency coordination meetings; manage a ‘cross line’ operation in Huambo, the country’s second city, at the time, under the control of UNITA and; mentor a young team to grow a program for IDPs (internally displaced persons) in the warm Atlantic coastal town of Benguela.
The country was at war but everyone got on with it. At least in Luanda. The sprawling airport along the ocean was something out of Francis Ford Coppola film—helicopters of all varieties and shapes whupping through the heat, cargo planes with UN plastered all over them landing and taking off every few minutes, masses of cargo (relief items, food stocks, smuggled goods of every description) overflowing from hangars. NGO jeeps and pickups darting about, amidst it all. The throbbing power was palatable. And intoxicating.
The city was flooded with IDPs from the interior where the fighting was much more intense and hard to avoid. There were funky clubs and many restaurants and bars for the local gentry (which included us aid types) to water themselves in, but most of the highrises were shabby and in need of paint. Profiteers from all over (Portugal, India, Lebanon, the States, Russians and Greeks) were invested in real estate and smuggling. The American Embassy was paying a monthly rent of $40,000.
The currency—the Kwanza—was shot. Soon after I arrived a new currency—the New Kwanza—was introduced with denominations in the hundreds of thousands. 1 USD bought you about 2 million New Kwanzas. When you ordered a beer you paid with five or six stacks of notes, each four inches high.
Everything was a racket.
I don’t know what caused the light to flash on in my mind but it was on a trip to Huambo with some colleagues. They were sincere, hard working and dedicated to helping ordinary Angolans cope with the terrible consequences of the war, including reuniting with their families from whom they had been separated because of the conflict. As our Russian Ilyushin cargo plane came into land one of my colleagues asked, “Now that you’ve been here for a couple months, what’s your impression?”
“We should all pack up and go home,” I said surprising even myself. Their faces twitched. I can’t remember if they asked me to elaborate but I did anyway. Even if they weren’t interested I wanted to know why I had said what I had.
What bothered me and what I was reacting against was The Grand Farce. It was plainly obvious that rather than alleviating the suffering and misery of the people my fellow aid colleagues (and I speak not of individuals but of organizations and the entire ‘aid system’) were an integral part of the problem.
Here’s just a few instances:
- The primary donors of the NGOs—Britain, the USA, Canada—were spending tens of millions of dollars to support the war ravaged populations of Angola. But at the same time, each of them, (and many others) were earning multiples of that figure in profits by selling arms to the combatants. And not just to our old ally UNITA. Now that the End of History had arrived they were free to sell their shiny toys to the government as well. It was an arrangement made in heaven. Add fuel to the raging fire but also provide a few leaky buckets for the fire brigade.
- This devilish deal not only made the donors look bad but it completely eliminated the need for the warring parties—MPLA and UNITA—to take any responsibility for the welfare of their people. Foreign NGOs–so eager were some to suck on the American teat–were willing to clean the streets of Luanda in the name of development. Perfect, thought the corrupt leaders. No need for us to do so. They secured themselves in gated communities, baked birthday cakes for the president that had to measured in meters and awarded each other medals for non-existent acts of heroism.
- The NGOs were so co-opted they simply didn’t get it.
Angola was not just a racket. It was, in John Cleese’s words, a ‘bloody racket’. I understood at last Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and my poorly written short story (still some years away) took inspiration from his tale of moral corruption and desolation.
Huambo, was the second city of Angola and had once had a VW assembly plant to keep its citizens employed. The highlands were thickly forested and fruit—I remember mainly avocados and mangoes—hung low. The humanitarian community had been bum rushed out of town on more than one occasion by UNITA whose drug addled leader, Savimbi, was headquartered a little up the road. NGOs returned for a short time before once again they skidaddled out of harm’s way as the government pushed back, capturing the city once again. UNITA regrouped and retook the city a second time.
We, like many other organizations, lost vehicles, cash, computers, warehouses full of supplies and food, repeatedly. But the donors didn’t seem to mind awfully much. As long as they were able to sell their planes, land mines and machine guns they were happy to throw some sops to the do-gooders. We also lost staff. Garrotted and thrown into wells to rot by UNITA.
Huambo city was post-apocalyptic. Every building was pocked by heavy artillery fire. Tanks rusted here and there. There was no water and no electricity. UNITA thugs issued dodgy permits and licenses for other services but paid special attention to charging exorbitant rates to land and take off from the airport.
We lived in a wet building with unglassed windows and toilets with plastic buckets. We ate miserable meals cooked on small gas camp stoves. Veterans (more than 6 months in country) regaled us with ever more horrific stories of human rights abuses by Savimbi and his men.
What hell had I descended into? What possible good are we doing here?
Whatever relief supplies we distributed were appropriated by UNITA. The local population was on the move and in no position to use the tools and seeds we provided in naïve hope of reviving kitchen gardens. Our presence didn’t serve as ‘witness’, only as cover. As soon as the planes came in low, we ran to the airport and begged to be evacuated. It was the Catholics who stayed and soldiered on through it all, not us well-intentioned, spreadsheet-savvy, strategically planned aid workers.
Perhaps I had been naïve about corruption to this point. But in Angola it was served piping hot every day. It was a gut-wrenching experience. Every nicety and every belief I had about the value of my work was blown apart. If the people who were funding the entire enterprise didn’t take aid and aid-talk seriously, then why should I be a fool and insist it still had merit?
When I handed in my resignation my boss blanched. He and HQ friends reminded me I needed to set an example for the younger staff. I was reminded also that I was squandering 6 weeks of language training in Lisbon. You are senior. You need to act differently, they said.
I didn’t listen. I was beyond suasion. I had had it with self-congratulation and willful blindness. Besides, my fiance was open to reconciliation.